OHS Canada 25th Anniversary Best Editorial

Compensating for the Past

December 1999

For 70 years, a Sarnia, Ontario company manufactured castings and insulation products using asbestos that saturated every inch of the workplace. As many as 7,500 people worked there over the years. And now the compensation claims are starting to pour in.

By: Jennifer McLaughlin

It's the stuff that nightmares are made of. For 70 years a factory used asbestos, and now its former workers — probably hundreds of them are dying as a result.

In 1985, no one knew why Donald Fitzsimmons was sick. The 12 year-old came home from school one day with flu-like symptoms and his mother, Maria LaCount, put him to bed. For two days, she treated him with cold and flu medications, but when his condition worsened she decided to take him to the hospital. LaCount says the doctors also believed that Donald had the flu, but she managed to persuade them to keep her son at the hospital overnight.

The next day, the hospital called LaCount to tell her that her son had fluid around his heart and that he was going to be sent to a London, Ontario hospital for further tests. In London, Donald was placed in a critical care unit where the fluid around his heart was drained. A few days later, the symptoms subsided and Donald was released. An exact cause of the illness was not determined at that time.

But, two years later, after repeated problems, Donald became seriously ill again. "I brought him to the hospital in Sarnia. They decided he should go back to London. This time I rode in the ambulance with him. It was a lot more serious than the first time," says LaCount. Emergency surgery was performed to alleviate the pressure around the boy's heart.

After the surgery, the doctors did a biopsy and discovered a cancerous tumour. It was large and essentially untreatable. Donald later succumbed to the illness on November 27, 1989, at the age of 16.

But what the doctors couldn't figure out was what type of cancer it was, so the hospital eventually sent Donald's records to a hospital in New York state for analysis. The New York doctors immediately diagnosed the cancer as mesothelioma, a rare and almost always fatal cancer of the lining of the lung or abdomen. Mesothelioma is virtually always associated with workplace exposure to asbestos, although an extremely rare virus that contaminated some polio vaccines in the 1950s has been cited as a possible cause or contributing factor. The London doctors were puzzled by the results, says LaCount. The boy clearly had never worked at a contaminated site, and, for that matter, had not been exposed to the vaccine, either.

The cause of the boy's death would have remained a mystery — a mystery that no one was working to solve — had not LaCount happened to come across an article in a local newspaper several years later. It was an interview with a woman whose husband had died of mesothelioma. "I thought to myself, what are the chances that someone else in Sarnia also got this cancer?" she says. LaCount decided to contact the woman.

That's when the pieces of the puzzle started to come together. She discovered that the woman's husband had worked at a local foundry, and that the presumed cause of his illness had been the exposure to asbestos that he suffered there. Donald's father had worked at the same foundry — the Holmes Foundry — and the work clothes he brought home were routinely covered in asbestos fibres. Donald, it seemed, had contracted the cancer from breathing in the asbestos that his father brought home on his clothing from his job at the Holmes Foundry in Sarnia.

The Holmes Foundry was established in 1918. In its early years, the Ford Motor Company contracted the plant to supply engine blocks, which, along with brake linings, were the two principal items that the foundry manufactured. In July of 1970, American Motors, Canada (AMC) acquired 100 per cent of the Holmes Foundry.

At one time, there were three separate operations at Holmes: the Caposite Insulation plant, which produced pipe insulation made from asbestos, the Holmes Insulation Plant, which manufactured insulation from rockwool, and the Holmes Foundry. Although the plants had three separate identities, they shared much of the same equipment, such as lift trucks, and the plants were inter-connected. When work at one of the plants was short, workers were sent to another part of the operation where they were needed. The caposite plant closed in 1974, and Holmes Insulation moved to another location. The foundry continued to use the empty areas for storage.

With the acquisition of AMC in 1987, Chrysler Corporation took ownership of the Holmes Foundry facility and its manufacturing business. Chrysler scheduled the operation for closure in September, 1988. In 1989, most of the facility was torn down.


Asbestos levels in the air at Holmes were, for many years, at levels that defy superlatives. By way of comparison, in 1984, a royal commission on asbestos exposure at a Johns-Manville plant in Scarborough, Ontario called it a "world-class industrial disaster" based on its readings of 40 fibres per cubic centimetre (f/cc) in 1949. But the Holmes facilities made the exposure levels at Johns-Manville look like a walk in the park. Levels measured in 1973 at Holmes were as high as 852 f/cc.

Asbestos was everywhere in the Holmes facilities. Former workers tell horror stories of asbestos in the air so thick they could hardly see, of asbestos on the floor that billowed up whenever anyone walked through, and of asbestos permeating every corner of the plant. There was a thick coating of asbestos on machines and on shelves. There was asbestos dust on the workers, on clothing, on exposed skin and in their hair.

The "dust" that workers refer to is actually made up of tiny fibres. And tiny fibres of asbestos, when they are inhaled (or, in some cases, ingested) cause cancer. (See "Is Chrysotile Safe?" March 1999, page 66.)

In the caposite plant, the asbestos arrived in 110-pound burlap bags. The worker at the beginning of the line — the charger — was required to lift the bags onto a hopper, split them open and feed the material into the hopper every two to three seconds, says John Sharpe, who was a charger at the caposite plant. A 110-pound bag lasted about four minutes. To help him break up the raw asbestos as it went in the hopper, he was provided with a pitchfork. "It could have been used, but I found it easier to feed the hopper by hand, it was just a lot faster," says Sharpe.

From there, the asbestos moved to a pipe roller, a worker responsible for rolling the asbestos into a thin sheet and then forming it over a mandrel to make pipe insulation. The mandrels were placed in large racks and then into pipe-baking ovens.

For respiratory protection, Sharpe says he was provided with a face mask that covered the nose and the mouth. But, he adds, "It would get plugged up easily, and in the summer months you were just perspiring too much to wear a mask, so most of the time we didn't bother." At that time, the asbestos in the air was considered just a nuisance, and no one in management ever tried to force workers to wear the masks.

Sharpe was also responsible for clean-up. The cleaners used an air hose to blow off the layers of asbestos that had settled on the machines. It would take two workers an hour and a half to clean up after an eight-hour shift. The asbestos would fill the air, sometimes making it impossible for the worker to see a person three feet away. The cleaners would try to bring all the asbestos together in one big pile and then shovel it into a bin that was brought to a dumpster. Sharpe says the dumpster was picked up regularly. "Where it went after that, I don't know," he says. "I never asked and no one ever told me." At the end of day, the workers were usually completely covered in asbestos, says Sharpe.

That, in fact, is how workers took asbestos home with them — on their clothes. Herbert Bailey, a worker at the foundry, tells the story of his first day on the job in 1963. His father has dropped him off at the Holmes Foundry in the morning, and after his eight-hour shift, Bailey, covered from head to toe in asbestos, dirt and grime, was happy to see that his father had returned to the plant to drive him home. "As I crossed the street, Dad gave me this look as if to say ‘who does this guy think he is coming over here?' He didn't know it was me. It wasn't until I got right close to him that he realized that it was me." Everyone who worked at the facility went home covered in asbestos. Every room had asbestos dust, including the washrooms and the lunchroom. One worker's wife remembers opening her husband's lunch box, after a shift, to find the black dust had also settled in there. "They must have been eating it too," she says.

Foundry workers just wanted to be able to leave as soon as they could, says Baron Blais, a worker who made castings parts. There was a daily casting quota that had to be met — 480 castings — after which the workers were free to leave. "One guy asked me once ‘why are you going so fast?' I answered, ‘Don't you want to get the hell out of here? We worked like mad hatters trying to get out of there," says Blais. Cross pollution from other areas within the plant and from the adjacent insulation plants was also a problem. Asbestos was used everywhere in the foundry. It was used as insulation for the walls and the ceiling pipes. Asbestos blankets were placed over the troughs where molten iron was poured to keep it in a liquid state. The blankets, upon heating, crumbled and needed to be changed many times during the day.

Scrap insulation was used in the windows and slabs of asbestos were laid on the catwalks so that the workers wouldn't burn their feet. Anywhere there was a need to preserve heat during the operation or to reduce the heat created in the plant, asbestos insulation was used.


In 1987, a Ministry of Labour epidemiologist, Dr. Murray Finkelstein, prepared a study titled "Mortality Among Employees of a Sarnia Ontario Factory which Manufactured Insulation Materials from Amosite Asbestos". Finkelstein's findings indicated a six-fold increase in lung cancer mortality among the Holmes workers exposed to asbestos for two years or more. He also documented an 11-fold increase in respiratory disease mortality.

Already in 1987, five cases of the "rare" mesothelioma among former Holmes workers were cited in the report. Three of the five workers died before the age of 50, and the others died before reaching 60.

Other than the government and the company officials, no one knew that the asbestos levels at the plant were hazardous to the health of the workers. Neither the company nor the government ever told workers of the long-term health risks they faced. "The general feeling at the time was that it wasn't the best thing for you, but you never thought it would make you ill or kill you," says John Sharpe.

"We didn't know that there was anything wrong," says Herbert Bailey. "All we saw was the government coming in to do inspections and we never heard anything after that. How were we supposed to know? We just saw that the company was bringing in inspectors, and figured we would have been told if anything was wrong. We just assumed that everything was fine."

One Holmes worker, Bob Clarke, believed that the working conditions at Holmes were the reason that so many workers were ill. Clarke was plant chairperson, the senior union representative for the facility, and the one to bring concerns to, for over 20 years. He had seen first-hand what the conditions of the foundry were like, and he believed affected workers should receive compensation. After the foundry closed in 1988, Clarke retired but continued to work on behalf of his former co-workers.

In 1994, after the Windsor Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) had decided to launch a satellite clinic in Sarnia, Clarke approached it to ask for help with the claims.

"Clarke told us horrendous stories of the work conditions at the foundry," says Jim Brophy, acting director of the Sarnia-Lambton OHCOW. At about the same time a widow of a worker also went to OHCOW with similar descriptions. Brophy says OHCOW agreed to help Clarke with the claims.

"He kept sending us claims," says Brophy. "Then we contacted the Canadian Auto Workers and told them there were many claims from one of their former plants." Still, little information was available about the conditions at Holmes.

In 1998, the CAW began to send surveys to former Chrysler workers to find out if any of them had also worked at Holmes and if they had any health conditions. The CAW also placed full-page ads in the local newspaper in an effort to find workers. In September, 1998, the CAW held a public meeting for anyone who had been affected by the Holmes facility. Over 200 people came to tell their stories.

It became evident that the CAW and OHCOW needed a clearer picture of the conditions that existed at Holmes. The CAW decided to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the government documents related to Holmes. Brophy was asked to read the documents and to prepare a report.

"It was pretty amazing. I was completely flabbergasted," says Brophy. "I had never read anything like what was in those documents. The exposures were literally through the roof. It was unbelievable."

Air samples taken by the Department of Health indicate that the asbestos exposure levels were far beyond the legal limit. In 1958, the air samples were 28 times the then-current standard. Says Brophy's report, this translates into exposures that were as high as 6,780 times Ontario's current limit.

In 1967, the next documented time that the government returned, 34 air samples were taken, of which only five were below the legal limit. The average sample was 2.7 times the standard of the day. By Ontario's current standards, there were samples that were 1,890 times higher than what is considered acceptable. Between 1972 and 1973, the Ministry of Labour issued 29 orders or directions in response to exposures that reached as high as 852 f/cc of air. In the 1970s, Brophy says the limit for amosite asbestos was two f/cc. Ontario's current standard for asbestos is 0.1 f/cc, meaning the samples taken in the 1970s are 8,520 times higher than what's currently acceptable. (Amosite is essentially banned in Canada today; exposure levels refer to chrysotile asbestos, which is thought to be safer than other forms of the mineral.)

The government documents also included statements from the inspectors who took the air samples. These comments included the following: "The handling of amosite asbestos at the feed platform constitutes very serious health hazards. This is also reflected by the air samples taken during the visit. The first sample was taken when the fibres were being broken by means of a pitchfork. This sample is 33 times the determined TLV. As a matter of fact, the writer has not seen such an excessive asbestos exposure anywhere else. The man engaged in breaking the fibres was practically covered with loose fibres. An approved type of respirator is provided to this man. However, it is my contention that this respirator would not prove to be very effective in such an excessive asbestos exposure. In fact, I would not be surprised if the man develops asbestosis before too long."

April 1972

"There has been no indication of progress in controlling asbestos at this plant. In fact, it would seem that the systems are deteriorating rapidly. All asbestos operations are scheduled to stop in about six months. It is my opinion that the level of exposure is too high to possibly consider permitting it for a further six months."

January 1973

"There is considerable improvement in results since the last two surveys. However the improvement has been achieved by only operating one of the three rolling machines. Improvement is a relative word and in this case should not be construed as indicating an acceptable condition. No count is below two fibres per cubic centimetre and there is still one count over 100 fibres per cubic centimetre. The average of all counts is 19.5 fibres per cubic centimetre."

March 1973

"In my opinion, it is almost impossible for the company to reduce the asbestos exposure by a considerable amount unless all operations involving asbestos are completely mechanized, totally enclosed, and adequately exhausted. Any attempt to resume the operations without providing adequate control measures should be discouraged."

January 1974

Workers, however, add that attempts were made to clean up the plants before the government officials arrived. "I knew they were coming, there was extra cleaning all around the plant. I don't know how the company knew, but they knew," says Frank Fracalanza, a caposite worker. When Fracalanza first started working at the facility in 1956, he worked at the Holmes Insulation plant. When the caposite plant first opened in 1957, he was asked whether he would prefer to work there. "I said, ‘sure.' It was the new plant. If I had known at that time what I know now, I would have said ‘no thank you'," he says.

Herbert Bailey also noticed attempts to clean up the foundry before government officials arrived. "The government inspectors never got to see the whole plant. They only got to see about an eighth. They never got right into the nitty-gritty where the dirt and noise levels were," says Bailey. "And still the samples they got were way too high." Bailey adds that the company would often paint the machinery before the inspections, to make the them look clean.

In total, the government issued over 300 orders and directions to the facility. Many of those were repeat orders, and most of them were completely ignored by the company.


Over 550 people have filed their cases with the CAW in Sarnia. At least 106 of these cases were filed by family members — wives and children — of diseased workers. Nick De Carlo, national health and safety representative for the CAW, says that 550 is probably only a twentieth of the people who were affected by Holmes. In its 70 years, the Holmes facility employed over 7,500 people, some for two weeks and others for over 30 years. There are also a number of people who were affected without even working at the plant, such as Donald Fitzsimmons.

Fitzsimmons is what the CAW refers to as a bystander — a person who was not directly involved but still affected. De Carlo admits that the CAW has only begun to scratch the surface on the bystander issue, but to date, bystanders include wives and children of the workers, and other people who lived or worked in close proximity to the plant. No one knows how many "bystanders" there were, or where they are today, or whether they are aware that their conditions could be related to Holmes.

Martha Fracanlanza is one of those bystanders. After working at the plant for 19 years, Frank Fracalanza was put on shift work, but the graveyard shifts were too hard for him to adjust to. He found another job at a different company that required everyone to have routine physicals. During one of those visits, an X-ray technician asked him if he had ever worked with asbestos. "I said yes, but that was 10 years ago," says Fracalanza. After that he made an appointment with his family doctor who sent him to specialists. Fracalanza was diagnosed with asbestosis. Every year he returns to the specialist to check to see if the condition has changed.

His wife Martha has some lung scarring, attributed to asbestos exposure from the clothing brought home from the plant. "Every time I went to the doctor, they asked whether or not I ever smoked," she says. "I've never smoked."


Today the CAW has taken over the claims management of the former workers. Bob Clarke passed away in October, 1998 of pancreatic cancer believed to be related to Holmes. He was able to bring 54 claims to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB); 51 were accepted. "That's a phenomenally high acceptance rate," says De Carlo. "Normally these types of claims are difficult to get passed."

Part of the problem that the CAW has encountered is that there are no company records. Proving that those who have come forward worked at the plant is difficult unless they have tax returns or pay stubs. John Sharpe, who has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, falls into that category. "You don't keep tax returns for 30 years," he says. Although he has proof that he worked at the rockwool plant after it moved to the new location (where no asbestos was ever manufactured) he does not have proof that he worked at the old plant. However, he did have a worker's compensation claim in 1973 when a fire badly burned one of his arms. He is in the process of seeking a copy of that claim from the government.

The CAW's efforts to find the former workers are also hindered by the fact that it doesn't have a list of people to look for. Some former workers could have moved to other cities, some may already be deceased, and some may not be aware that their illness could be related to Holmes.

When the CAW held its public meeting in September, 1998, the WSIB decided to send a nurse case manager to attend as an observer. After that, "it became clear to us that there would be a number of claims coming out of the Holmes facilities," says Linda Jolley, vice-president, research and policy, of the WSIB. "So I said let's look at ways that we can expedite these claims rather than having to look at each one individually."

The WSIB requires that each claim be investigated, that an exposure history be written and that the claim be evaluated. A way of expediting these claims is to determine what exposures existed at the facility and what possible occupational diseases could arise as a result. This way, an exposure history need not be determined for every former worker. Jolley says the first step for the WSIB was to piece together the work that took place at the three plants. This is especially difficult since no company records exist. The WSIB commissioned an independent expert on asbestos and the aerodynamics of dust to determine the exposures at the plant. WSIB officials also visited what remains of the site to get a better idea of the work process.

The WSIB committed to helping fund the OHCOW in Sarnia and has already given $400,000 to help with operational costs. The WSIB has also set up a satellite office in Sarnia.

The process that the CAW has developed with the WSIB begins at the CAW in Sarnia. Former workers begin by going to the union office to prepare a statement about where they worked in the plant, the conditions in the plant at the time, and their current medical conditions. The CAW forwards the workers' files to OHCOW. The OHCOW does not act as a treatment centre, but collects the health information of the workers. A doctor reviews the chart of each worker, usually seeing the worker at the same time, and confirms the diagnosis of the worker's family physician. The worker's file and compensation claim is then passed on to the WSIB.

A task force consisting of the WSIB, the CAW, the OHCOW and others meets every three to four weeks in Toronto to discuss the claims that have been brought forward to the board. To date the board has decided to accept claims of mesothelioma, asbestosis and some lung cancers. This means that those workers who have a confirmed diagnosis of these diseases, and have proof that they worked at Holmes, will receive compensation. The task force continues to meet and discuss claims such as heart disease, pancreatic and bladder cancers, other respiratory problems and hearing loss.

"It's a good process for handling a large number of claims. I think there's a lot of goodwill on everybody's part," says Jolley. "It may seem like the process is taking long, but this is happening far more quickly [than it would on a case by case basis]. Here we have all of the resources, one set of investigators and one adjudication process." To date, the board has received 73 claims from former Holmes workers; 23 have been accepted; 18 will be accepted, pending verification of diagnosis or confirmation that they worked at Holmes; one claim was denied; and 31 are waiting to be processed by the board. And the claims keep coming, adds Jolley.

Union representatives are hopeful that this process will bring compensation to many of the Holmes workers as quickly as possible. "If we do it right it will be a positive thing," says Bill Hicks, president of the Sarnia local of the CAW, adding that the process it developed with the WSIB is new to both parties.

Still, with just over 500 workers on file, there are another 7,000 former Holmes employees unaccounted for, not counting bystanders. Since the plant dates back to 1918, many have undoubtedly long ago passed away, but there must be many hundreds who have simply moved on, scattered across the continent, who are retired or working elsewhere, living their lives — and dying of the asbestos they inhaled long ago at Holmes.

Jennifer McLaughlin is editorial assistant of O.H.S Canada.